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Stranger Than Fiction, Bloodier Than D-Day
Conquistador by Buddy Levy
© 2013 James LaFond
An appendix to a Sickness of the Heart
I have read everything I can get my hands on, over the course of the past forty years, concerning the conquest of the Americas by European invaders. This impulse has always, in my mind, been tied to my ‘science-fiction’ interest in our species being contacted by aliens. There has never been a question in my mind that the meeting of Europeans and Native Americans after a 14,000 year separation is about as close as we have gotten on this planet to an alien invasion. The irony that ‘illegal alien’ status in the U.S. is most often applied to those people of largely Native descent whose ancestors barely survived the most vicious, and by far the best executed, military operation ever to be launched in the Western Hemisphere, is not lost on me.
My favorite read among all of my ‘American conquest’ books, and also a book that is among my ten favorite, is Buddy Levy’s Conquistador.
Conquistador
Hernan Cortez, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of The Aztecs
Buddy Levy
Bantam, 2008, NY, 429 pages
Buddy Levy is possibly the best writer of historical, or for that matter military, narrative I have read. To begin with he chose the craziest fantasy imaginable for his historical narrative…
Imagine a small-time politician, second-rate lawyer and thug talking the richest governor in the colonial territories into backing him in a treasure hunt. Then imagine he and his band of mercenaries, military reservists, adventurers, combat veterans and missionaries discover, in a land of huts and savages, the most advanced civilization on earth! Then imagine that this lawyer—who once twisted his ankle jumping from a married woman’s window—betrays the governor, murders his rivals, bullshits his men into believing in their wildest fantasies, and burns their ships, so they have to take on a two-million person nation of bloodthirsty cannibals in a do-or-die war that would last more than a year.
All this and more really happened. The story of the Mexican conquest is perhaps the single most improbable, most violent, and most high-impact example of how one man’s ambition can change the world. Estimates for the loss of life in Mexico, directly and indirectly attributable to the actions of Hernan Cortez, range well into the millions.
The conquest fortunately had its chroniclers, including Aztec priests later interviewed by Catholic priests, as well as the adventurers themselves. Mister Levy does a much better job of utilizing Aztec sources than previous authors have. The best example would have to be the war dogs. Dogs are never mentioned or depicted as instruments of conquest outside of the fantasy* movies Conan The Barbarian and Pathfinder, and are rarely, particularly in documentaries and historical texts, mentioned as being used by the conquistadors. Cortez’s 14 war horses are given top billing. This is a perfect example of European and aristocratic bias, depicting the Spaniards as noble warriors on noble beasts. According to Aztec accounts the man-sized grey hounds, mastiffs and wolf hounds employed by the Spanish to hunt Native Americans, who were their primary food source, were the most terrifying aspects of the alien invasion force.
The Aztecs, as Levy makes clear, were not only facing a very different type of person, a person more warlike than even the cannibalistic Aztec warriors could imagine, but also two alien species of large animals trained to hunt and kill men. Traditional history books and documentaries depict this struggle as a crusade—which was one of Cortez’s propaganda angles. But, through Buddy Levy’s riveting [the best word to describe it] and humane narrative what we come to appreciate of the greatest hostile takeover in history is that it resembles such futuristic fantasies as Avatar and Battle Los Angeles, more than anything else in our human experience. The only events that come close are those massively lethal invasions conducted by Cortez’s understudies in Peru and the Mississippi Basin.
But there is only one first time for everything. And, for the first and last time in human history, a massive alien civilization was discovered by the representatives of an equally alien nation. Unfortunately, those representatives were criminal psychopaths, equipped with state of the art weaponry and the greatest WMD in human history, an African slave with a bad cough…
It is astounding to me that this book has not been optioned as a movie.
*Here is a clear example of fiction being truer than fact. In our culture dogs must be heroic and horses noble. Therefore, in any acceptable depiction of the Mexican conquest the horse—and rich dude riding it—must take pride of place, and the man-eating war dog and his working class handler must be absent. Fantasy can be truer to life without ruffling contemporary sensibilities.
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